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R.A. Smith engineer dedicated to the details

R.A. Smith engineer dedicated to the details

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Dick Schluge, resident engineer for R.A. Smith National Inc., Brookfield, stands along the Menomonee River Thursday in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
Dick Schluge, resident engineer for R.A. Smith National Inc., Brookfield, stands along the Menomonee River in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

It’s always been about the details for Richard Schluge.

Even as a kid working on home improvement projects with his dad, years before he was keeping track of the all-important minutia for projects with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Schluge was drawing up the family gazebo, the backyard deck, the basement rec room.

“I would always draw them up and design them. Then, we would agree on what we needed. It was just easier,” said Schluge, a resident engineer with Brookfield-based R.A. Smith National Inc.’s construction division.

Nearly 35 years and dozens of projects into his career, Schluge said that predilection toward planning has never failed him, especially as the jobs have gotten bigger.

“Engineers don’t like surprises,” said Schluge, who works in a field office on MMSD property just north of Miller Park in Milwaukee. “What surprises me about my work is how the small details add up and how important they are. So the biggest challenge is paying attention to really all the small details that make a really good job at the end. That’s your challenge. You’ve just got to pay attention.”

For Schluge, that means not only writing clear specs and having clear drawings, but also talking about problems and ideas along the way. It is part of the reason he said he likes working on-site at MMSD, where he recently oversaw efforts to capture landfill gas in Muskego via a 19-mile-long pipeline so it can be used to generate power at the utility’s Jones Island facility in Milwaukee.

“I’m half in the field and half in the office,” Schluge said. “That works out well for me, since I could never just be behind a desk all day long. I need to be active.”

Being on-site also helps him keep track of all the details, he said, something he tries to convey to the next generation, as well.

“I enjoy working with them and mentoring them. I’m the seasoned professional. Notice I didn’t say old, but seasoned professional. And they have a lot of enthusiasm and teach me computer skills and keep me young,” Schluge laughed. “… At least, I hope it works out that way.”

The Daily Reporter: What would you change about the construction industry?
Richard Schluge: That’s a good question. I really would change the way the focus is on the lowest price and the cheapest options. I’d love to see a more quality-based thing. I’ll give you an example. I just got a new roof on my house. I didn’t have guys bid. I didn’t get three bids. I just worked with a contractor I felt really comfortable with, and I didn’t order the cheapest shingle either. And I’ll always be happy with this job for years to come.

TDR: What is the most useful thing you’ve learned since starting your job?
Schluge: There’s no substitute for experience. The craftsman working in the field, you can learn a lot from the ones who’ve been around a long time. They do things right. They work efficiently. The same thing with engineers and project managers. Once you’ve worked a long time, you’re just better at your job. I think all engineers should start in the field to learn how much space you need to work, how much space you need to store equipment, to move around with your machinery. Every designer would be better if they spent time in the field. There’s some small spaces where you can barely get in there. It’s not easy.

TDR: What device could you not live without?
Schluge: Yeah, I really couldn’t live without my laptop computer. I do all my paperwork on the computer and I get a lot of emails. It helps me for good communication. I’m all for saving time by doing things electronically and not mailing. We actually go faster and do better electronically processing submittals and change orders.

TDR: What do you wish you’d learned sooner?
Schluge: I wish I would have learned computers earlier, that I would have had them. When I first started engineering, we calculated things with handheld calculators. Now, we have software for almost everything. I wish I would have had that earlier.

TDR: What would your colleagues be surprised to find out about you?
Schluge: That’s a tough one. They’d be surprised to know I was an outdoor writer for a short time. I filled in for a newspaper and a magazine. Let’s just say Ernest Hemmingway wouldn’t have felt threatened by me. As they say, I need to keep my day job.


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